//Gratitude: an emotion associated with being thankful. Having an appreciation for what one has rather than what one wants. A deep and wide understanding that you have been given the miracle and grace of living this mysterious life.
Gratitude is a practice that we have been called to enter into for thousands upon thousands of years in religions and philosophies, great and small, as a way to find peace and connect to life. The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali talk of engaging in santosha (contentment) and refer to it as a key to true joy, a joy that cannot be disrupted by the ups and downs of everyday living. In the Bible, Paul call us to “In everything give thanks.” Ranier Maria Rilke responds to the question, “Oh speak, poet, what do you do?” with a simple “I praise.” Wisdom from our ancestors on the topic of gratitude is abundant, yet I still find that I am trying to unlock the mystery of turning this beautiful concept into a reality in my life. Living and breathing each day with a sense of gratitude for being alive. This is what I have discovered thus far:
I will begin with what gratitude is not to uncover what it is. Gratitude is not a denial of the terror, suffering, or hardship of the individual or of the world. It is important to remember this for a couple of reasons. First, if forgotten we run the risk of entering the futile game of trying to attain perfection in our lives by removing the experience of suffering. Life is not perfect, we are not perfect, and there will always be something or someone disappointing us or causing us pain. When constantly spending our time responding to the negative aspects of our lives rather than experiencing them in gratitude, we miss out on the wonders and beauty of our one life by hoping for another. When we devote so much attention to the perfection of our own lives we create our own cage built with bars of our unmet desires. The practice of gratitude guides us to freedom by moving us away from our own wants, desires, and worries, and opens our eyes to the greater narrative, revealing to us that we are blessed to be a part of the story of life. Second, if we were to deny the hardships of existence we would be in a constant battle with ourselves to be outwardly happy and joyful, and in turn feeling a sense of shame every time we are not. Gratitude is not an obligation, and to be grateful does not mean that hardship does not occur. Instead, gratitude guides us to move, genuinely, to a place enveloped with a deep sense of joy that is not wavered by emotions or events that happen to us. I think that Maya Angelou put it well when she said, “I can be changed by what happens to me. I refuse to be reduced by it.” We are transformed by how we choose to deal with what happens to us. In the practice of gratitude, we are given a challenge: to rejoice amidst, not in spite of, suffering.
Gratitude is a practice that takes time to cultivate. For me, the first step is to stop comparing my life to the lives of those around me. A dear friend once told me that comparison is the thief of joy, and she could not be more right. In an age where people post all of the wonderful things in their life, but hide all of the ugly, it is easy to get lost and feel like our lives will never be as good as our neighbor’s. However, we can choose to release the idea that in order to be joyful we need to obtain certain things that others have or that we believe will make our lives better. If we are always pining for the next thing that will make our lives more complete rather than enjoying the life we already have, we hold our Creator hostage. We say ‘praise for life will not come unless this, that, and this happens,’ but once they do happen our demands increase yet again. We have all done this, but it is important to begin to realize that this is a juvenile habit, one we should work toward letting go.
There is also another type of comparison many of us quickly revert to. We say, “I should be grateful because other people have it so much worse; at least I have this.” This voice is one of hopelessness, not one of true gratitude. We can all be working to make society and our homes more joyful and loving places, and resignation to ‘our lot in life’ is not true gratefulness. In addition, feeling good about ourselves or our situation because others suffer, continues the self absorbed mentality we are trying to avoid with practicing thankfulness. We are all connected and yoked together. The world’s suffering is a suffering to us all. Being grateful is a call to action to live into life as it comes, good and bad, and to work to reveal the light in the world. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Beginning to recognize the patterns and fluctuations of our minds is important in the cultivation of gratitude. A simple question to answer honestly: “Do you spend more time thinking about the things that are negative in your life or the things that are positive?” It is normal and natural to answer negative. When we focus on the negative, it can be challenging to recognize the reality that we are connected to and supported by all living creatures. A great way to start is to simply make a list of all of the things that you are grateful for, focusing on discovering how you are supported by a larger community of humans and creatures rather than on blessings of material goods.
Taking this practice as you move through the day can be a bit more difficult, and will take time. Here is an example that may be helpful as you sit down for your holiday meal. Holidays are filled with all sorts of emotions, good and bad, and we often bring a set of expectations that we want met. When we find that this gathering has failed to meet our ideal, which it most likely will, negative thoughts are sure to enter in. Here is an constructive way to deal with it and begin to build a grateful heart. Say to yourself, “Yes, this is hard and unfair, but I am thankful for. . .” and begin to remember the reality of how many people and creatures supplied the abundance of the day for you. Think of the effort and energy it took for your family and friends to gather, the food that was once living and is now providing you with nourishment, the cooks who prepared the food, the retailers who sold the food, all of the farmers who nurtured the food to grow, and even the sun, the rain, and the soil with all its little nutrient-rich bugs. The list could go on and on about how complete strangers and different tiny creatures made your holiday meal possible.
When we begin to seek gratitude rather than our own personal wants, our hearts can be free to the wonders and mysteries of the world. We are then able to see life for what it is, with both joy and pain. At this point, we give thanks for the life that was breathed into our bodies, the gift to experience life for ourselves, and that, ultimately, we are not alone.